There are basically three pentatonic scales that will work for jazz improvisation within each key signature. Remember, every key signature contains one set of modal scales and diatonic seventh chords. For example the key of C major contains C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian and B Locrian. When improvising over any of these modes (or their related chords) there are three pentatonic scales that can be used. When combined, these pentatonic scales outline the pitches of the key signature.
When compared to the Ionian mode, the three pentatonic scales that relate to the key are the major pentatonic scales built from the root, the fourth scale degree and the fifth scale degree. In Dorian mode, these same three scales would be built off of the third, fourth and seventh scale degrees. Since they outline the pitches of the same diatonic key, those same three pentatonic scales work across any mode or chord that is diatonic to that key. The reason for using pentatonic scales (as opposed to modal) is the contour that these scales add to the melodic lines.
However, with major seventh chords the fourth scale degree of the Ionian mode is generally considered to be an “avoid” tone. It can be used as a quick passing or neighbor tone, but is often considered to be too dissonant as a structural tone in improvisation. For that reason, the pentatonic scale built off of the fourth scale degree is not often used when improvising over a major seventh chord.
Last week we discussed quartal harmony and how it can be used to create quartal piano voicings. These types of voicing relate well to the sound of pentatonic improvisation. Often piano players will accompany their pentatonic improvisation with quartal voicings. McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea are known for first establishing this style of improvisation.
In this Learning Music With Ray video I discuss the use of pentatonic scales in jazz improvisation. I list the most common modes and chords used in jazz, and then relate them to the pentatonic scales that best outline the notes of each mode. Finally, I demonstrate pentatonic improvisation over the modes and chords that are discussed in the lesson.